The Book Show #1662 - Lawrence Wright | WAMC

The Book Show #1662 - Lawrence Wright

May 26, 2020

Joe Donahue: In the new thriller “The End of October” from the Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Lawrence Wright, Dr. Henry Parsons an unlikely but appealing hero, races to find the origins and cure of a mysterious new killer virus as it brings the world to its knees. The novel has a virus that starts in Asia, sweeps across continents, cripples the healthcare system wrecks the economy and kills scores of people worldwide. Yes, eerily prescient. And Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, screenwriter, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and fellow at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. 

It's a great pleasure to welcome Lawrence Wright to the Book Show. Thank you very much for being with us.

Lawrence Wright: Well, it's a pleasure to be with you, Joe.

What led you in the first place to want to write a novel about a pandemic?

The idea originated a decade ago when Ridley Scott, the filmmaker, wanted me to write a screenplay. He had read Cormac McCarthy's novel “The Road”, which is, you know, father and son wandering through the ruins of civilization. Right? And his question was, what happened? Cormac didn't bother to say, and so you know that it was an interesting challenge. What force or event would be so powerful that it would cause civilization to crack? And, you know, nuclear war was a possibility. But, you know, it's very difficult to find heroes in such a scenario. And as a young reporter, I had done some stories out of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and I met a lot of epidemiologists and microbiologists and virologists, I just thought, these people are remarkable. They're brilliant. They're brave. They go off into places that I would be terrified, these hot zones where novel diseases are cooked up. You know, to me, they are heroes. And so I thought it would be more interesting to set it in that environment. Ridley never made the movie, but I never forgot the idea. And a few years ago, I decided I would return to it and do the research I should have done first time around.

I want to talk about that research in a second. I mean, obviously a lot has been made and shouldn't be made, about how, as I said in the introduction, how prescient this this novel is. I should say, however, your novel, things turn out so much worse than where we are right now. Yeah, so that's good, right?

Yeah, one of my reviewers said it was consoling. I'm happy she feels that way.

Well it is somewhat consoling in the fact that you have a person like Dr. Henry Parsons, who is in and out in this novel, as far as being at the helm. But who knows what he's doing. And I did wonder, as I was reading the novel as to the parallels, like who is, in our current situation, who is the Henry Parsons?

Well, you know, there were a number of people that I talked to and I borrowed qualities from them, the epidemiologist, I had a lot of friends, a lot of sources back when I was young, who were in the Epidemic Intelligence Service and I set Henry in that world. His particular qualities there, there's this sort of intuitive genius that he has, and several of the people that are sources for this novel are like that. They’re the people right now who are developing the vaccines that are in human trials. I mean, I feel so grateful that they had time for me back in those days when I was asking them for help, but you know, when I would paint myself into a corner, you know, I'd have my hero, he has to solve this, you know, scientific problem with all these constraints on him. And I would have would ask my sources, here's the situation and, and they were delighted because essentially the qualities that imbue Henry, courage, curiosity and and a mind that kindles to puzzles most of these epidemiologists are problem solvers, they like riddles, and every disease is a puzzle. So, you know, the disease I concocted in the novel, they made it more real and more difficult to solve as a puzzle. And it was, you know, in some ways, I get more credit than I deserve, because so much of the intellectual work was done by those sources of mine.

The vocabulary, the language, the terms that you use in the book probably six months ago would have been foreign to most readers and now we're very familiar with them, including just coronavirus, right? I mean that that in and of itself is interesting.

Oh, yeah. And I there's a section of the book where I talk about SARS. Yes. And we're so fortunate that it is COVID that we're facing and not SARS. You know, SARS killed about 10% of all the people that it infected. And it can't it was in 2003, when we had the outbreak. And it was an amazing feat of the public health establishment worldwide to stop that contagion within 150 days. It's just a, you know, a triumph of public health and, you know, as unappreciated and practically forgotten by most people, I suppose. But the pandemic that we're in now could have been in 2003, with a far more fatal disease.

In the novel, it is called Kongoli virus. And the first half of the book, roughly the first half, is what is so eerily similar to what we're dealing with right now. And you point out that the parallels with what's actually happening, that's not coincidental?

No, it's not. Because, you know, it's not just the experts I talked to. There were all these tabletop exercises, Joe, almost every year there would be one at Johns Hopkins or somewhere where they'd lay out a scenario where a novel virus has suddenly appeared. And then what do we do? And they would have, you know, head of CDC, they would have administration officials, the real people, they would throw them these problems. And now what do you do? And, these scenarios were extremely useful to me. But also there was plenty of other research that I could draw upon so that I could make it as plausible as it is. The other thing I think that maybe readers don't realize, the virus that I concocted is, is an influenza. But it's really built on the 1918, Spanish flu. It's different in its physical qualities, but in terms of its effect, the progress of the disease in 1918 is essentially the course that my disease takes. And so in the calendar, you know, there's 1918 coming in the early spring, happens also in the novel. It's happening now where we are faced in February and March with a tremendously contagious disease that sweeps through the world. You know, in the novel, it turns out rather bleakly as it did in 1918, because when the second wave hit in the fall, October remains the most fatal month in American history

In the creation of the novel and what was going to happen, so where does the extrapolation begin of, okay, well, if this happens, which is very realistic, this is very real this this could happen, when did you start to say, okay, this is where I'm on firm, novelistic territory?

Well, my approach, I'm a journalist by training and so I, normally I ask what happened, and in this case, I asked myself what could happen? The process is not that different if you know, you do all this research and there are a lot of people who have been asking that question themselves their entire career, you know, you, you get a, you get an image of how things can happen. And then, on top of that, I look at the world as it is with all the fractures and the partisan rivalries and, you know, everything that's going on in the world, and I just add stress, and the pandemic is a stressor. What would happen geopolitically? And you know, there are parts of the novel that haven't come true. And I sincerely pray that they never do. But they could, looking at the blame game that's going on right now between China and the US, and Russia's attempt to undermine our democracy and all of these things, this ongoing Islamic civil war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, all of those things are at play in the world. And I don't think that the geopolitical fallout has entirely happened.

You right at the very beginning of the novel, you introduce a term called viral sovereignty, which is fascinating, where countries are latching on to the concept of owning patents on indigenous diseases.

Yeah, that's one of the reasons I started off in Indonesia, because Indonesia was the place where one dangerous flu arose, an avian influenza. And what happens in that situation is that scientists rush in, they try to analyze it, and then immediately try to figure out how to make a vaccine, all the things that you're seeing right now, but the Indonesian authorities withheld some of the information about it and they demanded to have some kind of ownership over the virus as if it were a natural resource like oil or gold. And it really bollixed up that process. And so it took a lot of negotiation and some concessions, so that scientists would be free to address a new virus as it comes out no matter where it is in the world.

Indonesia, you write, “Indonesia made the case that other countries would exploit the virus to formulate vaccines that Indonesia could not afford”. And also you have Henry, arguing that withholding data is just insane, which also comes to play in what we're seeing now, where we're seeing it in nations and countries but also individual states.

Yeah, and you would think that an event like this where we're all in danger, that there will be a source of unity, the world will come together, the country would come together. But what we're seeing, unfortunately, is more divisions, more rivalries. It's so striking to me that from the World Health Organization down to individual countries, down to individual states, down to cities and counties, everybody's improvising and there are elaborate, carefully laid out plans for how to handle a pandemic. And the administration had them handed off to them. Very carefully thought out program but apparently it just fell through the cracks. And each state has been kind of left to its own devices. I live in Texas and we're essentially wide open, bars open tomorrow. So you know, it's unnerving because there's a sense that it's not being driven by expertise. It's being driven by other factors, political factors.

Lawrence Wright is our guest his new novel is “The End of October”. It is published by Knopf. There’s one point late in the novel where you have the new president in your novel is sheltering in place and releases this this is when all hell is breaking loose, releases a statement that stores would soon be open the baseball season would resume and as you write “all lies, as everyone knew but respectfully reported.” Are we in that case now where a lot of it is just wishful thinking?

You know, if it just stops at wishful thinking we’ll be okay. I'm worried about the, the idea of resuming mass events in particular. And, reopening the stadiums when it's one thing to have the teams playing, but it's another thing to bring the fans into the stand. Political conventions, you know, this is a real challenge to our democracy. How do you campaign, how do you how do you even vote? You know, this is a big political issue, but voting by mail and so on. But all of those things, you know, if you drop all caution, this virus would just flare up and, and consume us. That's what it wants to do. The only reason that we've been able to hold it at bay as well as we have is because of the sacrifice of individuals to shelter themselves in their houses at such an enormous personal cost.

Lawrence Wright is our guest. The name of the new novel is “The End of October”. It is published by Knopf. The idea in the book, you get so specific as far as the science, of course. When you're dealing with the various government agencies, it becomes a little more vague. You refer to the State Department just as State or as Defense, even Vice President and President and yet, they fit their descriptors.

Well, I had the idea that I wanted it to be set in now. I didn't want to be seen as a political diatribe. And yet, I wanted it to be realistic, you know, to make it feel like we're in the world that we actually inhabit. And that's why some of the characters are actually real people. And some other characters resemble real people. But they're not meant to be them. I didn't put their names on it for a reason.

The idea that it is the vice president that takes over this effort, really. We, of course, see you that. Is that again, I assume not a coincidence.

Well, it was said lucky guess. I figured, you know, this is the kind of sticky political problem that a president wouldn't want to own. And so, you know, easiest thing to do is hand it off to a vice president who doesn't have very much else to do.

This was not on my list, but I just I have to wonder about it. If you wrote a novel like this, if your novel included a section where the President was taking a drug that everybody said wasn't good for you for that purpose or was not safe, or whether it be about just asking the question about, about bleach and disinfectants, I mean, you would be reviewed harshly, would you not?

Well, people give me too much credit for, you know, knowing what was gonna happen. I mean, I, as I said, I talked to experts and so on, but then there's, you know, the, the sort of fortuitousness of some of the things that I came up with, and it certainly would be true if I had the president taking hydroxychloroquine you know, would be uncanny. So, fortunately, I did not do that.

But just this idea of what our reality often is mirroring is sometimes it rivals your job as a fiction writer, right?

Oh, yeah, no, that's true. I mean, I find that, you know, there, there are so many things that have outrun my own imagination. You know, and I'm glad I'm not trying to write this novel after the COVID experience, because it would be hard to match it.

I was fascinated because I will say that I was a little leery of reading a book like this during the pandemic, but I'm so glad that I did because it is so filled with information, learning about the viruses that come out of the seawater in just a liter bottle, and also that the viruses are what helped us evolve and give us a smell and taste and touch. It's fascinating that history and it helps you become better informed.

Yeah, I just loved writing about that stuff. I think the viral world was such a mystery and it is a mystery. I mean, there are trillions of viruses, and we don't know anything about them. But you know, the lore and the science around it, I was totally captivated by it. And because I'm the kind of person I am, you know, essentially, I like plunging into worlds that I don't know about, and trying to understand them, and then trying to imagine the people that inhabit them. You know, that world was particularly interesting to me and I feel a little nostalgic for the experience I had and researching it and writing it.

When it comes to research, I assume you wanted to spend time with the CDC?

Yeah, I did. My hero works at the CDC and well, I called and called, and I could never get anybody to return my call or set up any kind of appointments. And I was on my way to Georgia anyway, to go to a submarine base to retour, a nuclear submarine. So it's, you know, it was ironic that I could get into this super-secret military base, but going to the CDC, which is, you know, one of its functions is to communicate about health to the public. I found that totally bizarre.

As you mentioned, you had worked with the CDC in the past so do you have any sense of what the issue was?

No, I guess it just struck me as rank incompetence, honestly. Because, you know, in calling, identifying yourself as a member of the press, you've got a legitimate interest. That's part of their job is to communicate. And so I don't know, I found it odd. I don't want to take personal offense at it, but it just was an early…it struck a strange note to me because I revered the CDC. It has been a great institution in the past, it's a world standard, you know, of healthcare and in public health. And so it just seemed like something was off. And so anyway, I'm heartbroken by how badly the CDC has stumbled in this COVID crisis that we're in.

As you mentioned, your hero is Henry Parsons, who's an epidemiologist at the CDC. So how do you fill in the blanks, then for you and in the research?

Well, I mean, I went to Fort Detrick and National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Allergies and Immune Diseases. You know, I spent a lot of time talking to experts and also in private industry, the Chief Scientist at Pfizer who is in charge of their COVID vaccine right now. So people that were on the ground, who are actually, you know, doing the kind of work and research that my hero does. Those are the people I wanted to talk to.

You mentioned the nuclear submarine a few moments ago, but that's a major part of this book, too. What was it like to research that to spend the time, like Henry does on this on the sub?

Well, I, you know, it's the nice thing about being a journalist or a writer of any sort, I guess is you have this passport to go to places that people don't normally get to. And I had invented the idea that my hero would have to be on a submarine. And I'd never been on a submarine myself. And so it turned out the Navy was delightful. Once this was cleared, I got to interview maybe 15 people at the base. They were, you know, they went on the USS Tennessee, which was one of the boomers as they call them. We have 14 in our fleet. And each of them is equipped to carry 24 intercontinental missiles, with eight warheads on each and, you know, one of these submarines can essentially almost destroy the whole world. It's just incredible. The amount of firepower that is on this, and these missiles are 40 feet tall, Joe. They’re, you know, it's sort of hard to take into your mind how massive this whole thing is. And when I was on board they were doing a test and I was in the targeting room where I hope the sanest people in the world are, but they said that they were doing this test and you know, I asked to see the button and it's attached to what looks like a pistol grip and some coiled wire and in the question was, would you like to push the button? The weight of the, you know, I said, are you sure that this is you know, not attached to anything that could go off? And oh yeah, we were just in this test mode. So we're still here so I suppose that we’re safe.

You have a scene in the book, I believe it’s the captain who is, when you're on land, is showing you the warheads that would be on the various subs. Yeah. And we're showing Henry and I assume that was shown to you?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I was taken around and I, I just, you know, I came out of that base, just full of gratitude for the service that all these people are doing, and also intrigued by the, the world that they inhabit. This submarine world is very interesting. Culture is extremely sophisticated, God knows it's dangerous, and also the moral responsibility that is required when you step onto that submarine and your mission, if you're ever called upon to exercise, it is so catastrophic. You know, it's just really, I thought this is one of those places where as a human being you don't want to be. On the other hand, you know, in terms of protecting us, I think these people are probably as good Americans as you could possibly find.

Lawrence Wright's new novel is “The End of October”. It is published by Knopf. Lawrence, thank you very much for being with us, a great pleasure to have you on the program.

It's been fun talking to you, Joe. Thanks for having me.

Thank you. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book at wamc. org and you can listen again to this or find past book shows via podcast or at wamc.org. Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmark us for next week, and thanks for listening. For The Book Show. I'm Joe Donahue.